ACLU Report Finds Washington State's Death Penalty System Fundamentally Unfair

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
August 4, 2000 12:00 am

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SEATTLE — Calling for the state to halt executions, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today released a report revealing that Washington’s death penalty system is fundamentally flawed and unfair.

“The prevalence of overturned convictions and death sentences shows clearly that the Washington death penalty system gets a failing grade on fairness,” said ACLU of Washington Board President Beth Andrus, who prepared the report along with Legislative Director Jerry Sheehan. “Under the current system, there is a serious risk that an innocent person will be executed.”

The ACLU report analyzes court rulings in Washington cases in which the death penalty has been imposed since 1981, when the state’s current death penalty statute took effect. These decisions make it clear that capital defendants do not receive effective legal representation, that they are subjected to judicially unsound rulings, and that they can face conduct by prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement officials that does not comply with the law.

According to the report, defendants have been sentenced to death based on false testimony of police informers, on evidence wrongfully withheld by police or prosecutors, on prejudicial rulings by trial judges, and because of negligent representation by their defense attorneys.

The Washington Supreme Court has far too often ignored these constitutional errors, all too frequently affirming constitutionally deficient convictions and death sentences, the ACLU said.

Of the eight capital cases which have been reviewed by federal courts after defendants lost their appeals and petitions before the state supreme court, all but one have been overturned due fundamental errors at trial. This reversal rate of Washington capital cases by federal trial and appellate courts greatly exceeds the national average of 40 percent.

How our society guarantees fairness in applying the death penalty has caused substantial debate in recent months. In June, Columbia University issued a comprehensive study reporting on 23 years of capital punishment throughout the United States. This study found that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of America’s death sentences are overturned on appeal by state and federal courts, leading to the inevitable conclusion that this country has a “broken system” that can only be described as one “fraught with error.”

The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates in 1997 adopted a policy calling for a halt to all executions unless and until fundamental changes occurred in the system of capital punishment. It based this policy on findings that the application of capital punishment failed to ensure fundamental fairness and impartiality. The ABA also determined that, because of systematic failures, there is an intolerable risk that innocent persons are executed.

The ACLU of Washington report is online at:

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